Bilingualism


So let’s talk about multitasking. As adults,
this isn’t really something we’re all that good at. That could be even more
true about learning languages: learning even one new language can seem really intimidating.
Learning two or more at once just seems ludicrous to most people. But for babies,
those little linguistic geniuses? They can double up and have room left
over for crying and crawling. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is the Ling Space. New parents can get really worried about how
their baby will deal with acquiring language when they’re exposed to more than one
at a time. They think, “oh no, my poor baby, they will get
their English and their French all together in one bin in their head and they’ll just get confused! And then all the other kids are going to laugh at them!” Well, through the early 1980s, that’s what
linguists thought, too. There was a lot of concern about what happened to babies who were
learning two different languages at once, which is also known as simultaneous bilingual first language acquisition. And as it happens,
a very influential paper from the late 1970s said that those dual-language-wielding babies
did exactly that. All the grammar, all the vocabulary, for both languages would get clumped
together in the baby’s mind, and then they would just have to sort it out later. Parents still get worried about that, but
fortunately, we know way more about bilingualism than we used to. And it turns
out, we have nothing to worry about at all. These little kids have no trouble telling what
words and sentences should go where, and they build grammars for both languages just fine. So how can we know that they’re separating
out their two languages? Well, we can examine their production in both languages. A 2000
study looked at 15 French/English bilingual children between 2 and 4 years old. The researchers
wanted to see whether the kids made mistakes about where they put negation in the sentence. For
English, negation comes before the verb, like in “The Browncoats didn’t win the Battle
of Serenity Valley.” But in spoken French, it comes after the verb. That would be like, “Les Browncoats ont pas gagné la bataille de la Vallée de la Sérenité.” Now, if kids have mixed grammars, we should
expect to see them sometimes sticking negation after the verb in English, and before it in French.
But even the younger kids in this study know the right place for negation to go. They
already separated out English and French syntax, so they know where “no” should go. But that’s just one example. A systematic
review from 2005 looked at longitudinal data, or data collected from one child over a long time, from 29 different kids. These children were between 1 and 6 years old, and there were a lot of different
language pairings in the data: Spanish and Basque, Latvian and English, French and
Swedish, and lots more. Beyond that, the different research reviewed across those 29
kids was looking at a lot of different syntactic properties: pronouns, word order,
gender, negation, lots of different things. So the results from this? Across the data
sets, for all the children examined, there was zero evidence of
anybody putting their grammars together. They keep the two languages separate in their heads;
there’s a fence, and the grammars can’t jump across. But we’ve just been talking about syntax
so far, and that’s not all there is to language. Like, what about sounds? Can little kids learn the
different phonemes of their two languages? Okay, so first, we need to remember that we
have to be looking at kids after they’re a few months old. Younger babies have the ability to differentiate between any two sounds that are phonemes in any language in the world. Babies are
just awesome that way. But after that, normally, we lose the ability to tell those sounds apart, and we can only hear the phonemes of our own language. Well, a study from 2003 looked at babies who
were learning both Spanish and Catalan. Catalan cares about the difference between the two
vowels [e] and [ɛ], but Spanish doesn’t. To Spanish, those are both parts
of the same phoneme. So the researchers tracked down three age groups of babies – 4
month old super awesome babies who can differentiate between any pair of sounds; 8 month
old babies who are somewhat less awesome at telling the difference between vowels; and 12 month
old babies, who are basically locked into their language’s sound system. And they
got babies for each of these ages who only spoke Spanish or Catalan, and then some simultaneous bilingual kids. Okay, so: the littlest babies, no matter what
language they spoke, could tell apart [e] and [ɛ]. Spanish babies, as they got older,
didn’t care anymore – to them, [e] and [ɛ] were the same sound. And Catalan babies always
cared – to them, this was always an important, meaningful differnce. But the bilingual babies?
They couldn’t tell at 8 months old, but then they recovered the ability to tell the difference between [e]
and [ɛ] by the time they were one. Which is super interesting – it’s like they thought, mmm, no,
nah, maybe not, okay wait, yes, maybe, yes, okay – yes. And also, it means they’ve
nailed the sounds that they need for their language by the time that they’re 1. That might not be
as good as 8 months, but I think we can agree that’s still pretty fast. And it’s not
just vowels – we see similar patterns for consonants, too, like for French and English
bilinguals. Now, part of the reason that parents get so
concerned is that they hear their children mixing their two languages together, and they’re like, oh no, my baby is confused! They’re never gonna get their two languages right! This process is known
as code mixing, and it can happen at any layer of the language,
from sounds to words to sentences: a German/English bilingual kid might say “pfeifting” instead of “whistling”; an English/French bilingual kid might say “Jayne found a statue of himself,”
instead of “a statue”, or “River wants to close the light,” instead of “turn off the light.” Early research into code mixing assumed that these
kids actually were just confused. But then some other linguists thought… “But bilingual
adults do this kind of switching, too.” And the adult research found it’s all conditioned:
you switch more or less depending on who you’re talking to, what you’re talking about, how
good you are at both of your languages, how formal it is you’re being, and other factors too. So it’s a variety of social cues, not mashed-up language. problems. And it turns out, kids are pretty much the
same. You see more mixing happening when they’re in their weaker language, and you see less mixing happening when they’re
talking with someone they know only speaks one of their languages. The fact that they can control it
at all though is a sign that they don’t have the same grammar for both languages. And it’s worth noting again: we’re talking
about this stuff at really, really early ages. All the studies I talked about here? Those are
of little kids, learning the two languages together from the start. So they’re getting them without
explicit learning, and without any of the difficulties that older kids or adults have in learning new languages. And there’s even evidence suggesting that learning two languages that young makes it
easier to learn new languages later in life. There’s a lot more to say about this,
but for now, the message is prefectly clear: learning multiple languages as a baby or young
kid is basically a total win. So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space
for this week, but if your code didn’t get too mixed, you learned that linguists think
bilingual kids have two different grammars for their two different languages; that we’ve
decided that because of a lot of data from bilingual kids’ speech and perception; and
that even though kids do some code mixing, it doesn’t mean that they’re confused
about their different grammars. The Ling Space is written and produced by
me, Moti Lieberman. It’s directed by Adèle-Élise Prévost, our production assistant is Georges
Coulombe, our music and sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE.
We’re down in the comments below, or you can go over to our website,
where we have some extra material on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter, and
Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe.
And we’ll see you next Wednesday. L’hitraot!

Danny Hutson

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